Biden spoke at length about Byrd — with whom he served in the Senate — when meeting with the 50-member Democratic caucus, saying the late West Virginian believes Senate rules are not static and must evolve. Later in the discussion, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) recounted that Byrd repeatedly maneuvered to change Senate rules on a smaller scale through simple majority voting — the same kind of move as Merkley and other progressives sold almost all the members. of their party on doing so.
“Joe asked about the Senate rules change. And Joe [Biden] talked about his experience. He had been here for 36 years. He has changed a lot. The point he made was that Senate rules are not sacrosanct,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said after the visit. “President Biden, speaking as a senator who has seen a lot of changes in the rules, talked about the rules changing because times change.”
But Thursday was a painful day for Senate rule reformers. The commander-in-chief coming to the Senate for a final push on rule changes couldn’t shake resistance from Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said late Thursday that the chamber would postpone a previously scheduled recess and return Tuesday to begin debating election and election legislation. He also reiterated his promise that the Senate will vote on rule changes if Republicans block passage at the final passage, as they are expected to do.
Despite Biden’s visit and next week’s ground showdown, Manchin and Sinema are just digging.
After the caucus meeting, Manchin said in a new statement that “I will not vote to remove or weaken the filibuster.” He cited Byrd’s 2010 Senate Rules Committee testimony, in which Byrd emphasized the need to protect filibuster, but also decried its overuse. His stiff arm was a blow to Biden and Schumer’s efforts to change the rules along party lines.
Even when Democrats filed their caucus meeting with Biden on changing Senate rules to reform federal elections, a response to GOP-backed state laws designed to restrict ballot access, a good chunk of them they did not know that they had already lost. Minutes before the group’s meeting with Biden, Sinema slammed the door on weakening the filibuster during a Senate speech that Biden once called home.
“People were just surprised when we walked in there. Because no one knew she was on the floor talking” in defense of the filibuster, said a Democratic senator who missed the remarks. Sinema: “There were probably 20 people in there who didn’t even know she said anything.”
Biden had prepared remarks for the meeting, but instead chose to speak off the cuff, recalling that he asked the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (RS.C.) to support the Voting Rights Act while they were both in Congress and arguing that a majority of Republicans today would not support this landmark bill. Biden told senators he couldn’t remember a time in US history when a party had been as captivated by one person as the GOP is by former President Donald Trump.
Unlike Manchin, Sinema did not ask Biden a question during his roughly 90-minute visit with the caucus. There might not be much to say: Sinema made it clear during her speech that, while she supports voting and electoral reform bills, she “will not support separate actions that aggravate the underlying disease of division that infects our country.”
Many Democrats declined to comment on Sinema’s pre-rebuttal to Biden, privately upsetting some who thought she should at least listen to the president. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) observed, “The timing is interesting.
During his meeting with Democrats, Biden also sought to clarify an attempt Wednesday to speak with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the Kentucky Republican criticized the president for a speech in Atlanta that invoked the movement. of civil rights to push for the voting reform bill.
Biden told senators he didn’t think McConnell was comparable to civil rights-era segregationists and asked Republicans which team they wanted to be on when it came to voting rights.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.) took to the floor to ask Biden what he would say to colleagues worried about Republicans taking advantage of a weakened filibuster when they regain power in the Senate. Biden responded that the GOP is currently very divided and said Republicans would struggle to push through priorities with a majority as slim as 52 seats.
The president briefly addressed reporters after the visit, observing the long odds he faces: “The honest answer to God is I don’t know if we can make it happen.”
For some, it is obvious that no amount of private lobbying from Sinema’s colleagues, no public criticism of activists and no floor votes to change the rules will change her position.
“Obviously she was telegraphing that she wasn’t going to change her mind,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said. “So this is it.”
Even with the latest statements from Sinema and Manchin, Schumer gives no indication that he is backing down from his push for a floor vote on rule changes, even if it means splitting his 50-member caucus. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House will continue to fight.
But PSAKI added that it’s up to Schumer to decide what the next steps are for a bill the party has described, in no uncertain terms, as essential to saving American democracy.
Biden “believes it’s right to change the rules in order to pass the right to vote and protect people’s basic rights,” Psaki told reporters.
And Biden has not yet given up trying to change the minds of the two centrists. He met Manchin and Sinema at the White House on Thursday evening, according to a White House official.
Although next week’s vote on rule changes looks doomed, many senators want to keep diving forward. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) delivered an impassioned speech during Thursday’s meeting with Biden, laying out the GOP’s recent changes to voting laws — including in his state — and imploring his colleagues to take action. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga), who is up for re-election this fall, said afterwards that regardless of the opposition of his two colleagues to the rule changes, “the most important thing is to have the right to vote, full stop”.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) argued that the upper house already empowers the minority, given that states like Wyoming have as many senators as California. And Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the party’s most senior senator, asked why the caucus couldn’t unite around weakening the filibuster.
Leahy said that in the final year of his more than four-decade Senate career, he would do whatever it takes to get these bills passed.
“We’re going to have a lot of drama when we come to vote,” said Merkley, who sat on the Senate floor during Sinema’s speech. “Hope will spring eternally for me, until it is snuffed out.”